107 #17: Captain Smith was accident-prone

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Titanic Captain Smith

TRUE. But only in this new class of liner. Captain Smith had not become one of the most successful and highly paid liner captains in the world by being accident prone. He had over 40 years’ experience at sea and was regarded as a very skilled handler of ships, as we have seen. As Lightoller points out in his memoirs, Titanic and Other Ships:

‘Captain E.J. was one of the ablest Skippers on the Atlantic, and accusations of recklessness, carelessness, not taking due precautions, or driving his ship at too high a speed, were absolutely, and utterly unfounded; but the armchair complaint is a very common disease.’

However, Titanic and Olympic, at over 45,000 GRT, were nearly twice the size of Smith’s previous command, the 24,541 GRT Adriatic, which Smith had captained since her maiden voyage in 1907. As we saw in the previous question, these giant new Olympic class liners had handling characteristics with which no-one at the time was familiar, not even Captain Smith.

Although technically under pilot at the time, this explains why Smith experienced an unusual number of accidents with these giant new ships, and not just Titanic’s near-miss with the New York: At 12.46 p.m. on September 20th, 1911, the same hydrodynamic forces associated with this new class of ship caused the Olympic to suck into her side the 7,500-ton Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke. Both ships were doing about 15 knots and were only about 200 yards apart at the time, as they were leaving Southampton down the narrow channel of water called Spithead, off the Isle of Wight. HMS Hawke’s prow and battering ram pierced the Olympic’s hull both above and below the waterline on Olympic’s starboard quarter near her stern, flooding two compartments and damaging her starboard propeller. Her voyage to New York had to be cancelled and her passengers taken off by tender. Olympic then limped back to Southampton and later to Belfast for six weeks of repairs, which delayed Titanic’s completion.

Captain Smith even had two small accidents with Olympic on her maiden voyage. As she was arriving in New York on June 21st, 1911, one of the 12 tugs nursing her into her slip at the especially lengthened Pier 59, the tug O. L. Hallenbeck, was sucked against Olympic’s stern by a burst of reverse thrust from Olympic’s starboard propeller, cutting off the Hallenbeck’s stern frame, rudder, and wheel shaft. Olympic also scraped the corner of the dock in New York, on her way into the slip.

Regardless of Captain Smith’s undoubted great skill and experience, these giant liners simply behaved differently; indeed, it was Titanic’s sheer size that made her glancing blow with the iceberg fatal, as her Second Officer also explains in his 1935 memoirs:

‘She struck the berg well forward of the foremast, and evidently there had been a slight shelf protruding below the water. This pierced her bow as she threw her whole weight on the ice, some actually falling on her fore deck. The impact flung her bow off, but only by the whip or spring of the ship. Again she struck, this time a little further aft. Each blow stove in a plate, below the water line, as the ship had not the inherent strength to resist.

‘Had it been, for instance, the old Majestic or even the Oceanic the chances are that either of them would have been strong enough to take the blow and be bodily thrown off without serious damage. For instance, coming alongside with the old Majestic, it was no uncommon thing for her to hit a knuckle of the wharf a good healthy bump, but beyond, perhaps, scraping off the paint, no damage was ever done. The same, to a lesser extent with the Oceanic.

‘Then ships grew in size, out of all proportion to their strength, till one would see a modern liner brought with all the skill and care possible, fall slowly, and ever so gently on a knuckle, to bend and dent a plate like a piece of tin.

‘That is exactly what happened to the Titanic. She just bump, bump, bumped along the berg, holing herself each time, till she was making water in no less than six compartments, though, unfortunately, we were not to know this until much later.’

Captain Smith had not been accident prone, or unskilled, or careless, but these were ships of a different era and neither he nor anyone else had any experience in handling such enormous vessels.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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